Making Aspirational Leadership a Reality: Developing Accountable Leadership

By Cathy McCullough

5 key thoughts to consider for becoming an accountable leader.png

dateFri, Jan 17, 2020 @ 12:00 PM

The key question relative to becoming an accountable leader is this: How do you turn an aspiration into a reality?

At a recent Rhythm Systems Breakthrough Conference in Charlotte, I was honored to provide a keynote presentation on becoming an accountable leader. I shared what I’ve observed in my 25 years of working with leaders of amazing companies. Over these years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of men and women who truly do desire to become better leaders. As I reflected on that thought, I realized even more that great leadership is a journey. Whereas a company has a long-term vision or BHAG (longer term because it’s like leading an expedition up Mt. Everest—which takes dedication, focus, commitment, and time around some powerful Winning Moves), leaders must desire to be great. Many leaders can be good, but to be great is their true aspiration. 

So, how do we answer the key question noted above?

Here are 5 key thoughts to consider for becoming an accountable leader:

Build a Culture of Personal Ownership. One incredible CEO I work with runs a $55m company that serves the oil and gas industry. It’s a complicated industry (with high expectations). I recently asked him what he does day-to-day as CEO. His response (after a lengthy pause): “I really don’t know what I do.” Well, he’s an economist by trade and he loves the numbers, so I know he’s looking at spreadsheet after spreadsheet of numbers. “Yes,” he said, “I do that, but I do that really because I like doing it. The company is running itself so I really don’t have to look at all those mounds of data. I just like looking at all those numbers!” So how, I asked him, does he run such a viable company while also traveling all over the place (literally—all the time)? His response: “Because we not only have the right people in the right seats on the bus, but we also have taught them to take ownership of the accounts they serve.” 

This CEO’s catalytic mechanism is spitting out new contracts at a steady clip while also maintaining almost a 100% retention of existing clients. His people have been taught how to think like business people. They’ve been taught how to work with clients and how to exceed customer expectations, thereby fueling their phenomenal retention rate. They’ve been given the accountability, too, of renewing contracts. A sales person doesn’t call on them; their field worker (who they know) calls on them. They maintain and service the account, and they’re held accountable for getting the renewals.

The CEO, by his own admission, says, “I stay out of the way. From day one on the job, we educate and orient our front-line workers to do it all.” And their bonus system is linked directly to the company revenue, and the bonus is paid immediately upon every renewal (vs. quarterly or annually).

“We simply give them line of sight to how the business works, we educate them on what’s needed for success of the company, and we give them the personal ownership of the accounts they’re serving. All I can say is that it’s worked for us.” And indeed it has. This CEO has managed to perfect a culture of personal ownership.

Create Transparency. Without hard data, it’s difficult to measure what’s really happening in your business.  There might be a lot of activity (at least everybody looks busy!), but what are they actually spending their time doing? Are they focused on what really matters?

One client group I work with once struggled with creating systems and processes that were scalable (which is a problem when you want to grow your business). Every day was a constant array of fire drills—random meetings, disorganized discussions, and the information that was needed was filed in one of a dozen databases—so who knows! The pain was so bad that the CEO finally reached out to Rhythm Systems for help. Over just a couple of years, this company has organized their critical internal processes, they’ve created a new client onboarding regimen that is now seamless (vs. haphazard), and fire drills are rare. They’ve narrowed their various databases to the few they need, and the Rhythm KPI dashboard is one of those reservoirs that helps the executive team keep an eye on the strategic items that are most important to their company’s future.

They’ve also cascaded the Rhythm dashboard to five other key departments, which has allowed the CEO the build the transparency that’s needed for company-wide collaboration, mutual problem-solving, and personal ownership. Their dashboard gives them the visibility into the inner-workings of the company to see progress (or not) toward identified success metrics. Without such definition, measuring success becomes a crap-shoot.

Have Strategic Conversations around Results. Every single day I see leaders having conversations around all the drama created by people saying things like, “But if he would do this or that, then we wouldn’t be in this situation!” Whatever the storyline, it’s drama at its best. And there’s a tipping point when it comes to drama: People focus so much on the drama that they stop focusing on results. Instead, conversations evolve around all the stories about why something didn’t get done, etc. 

Accountable leaders hold themselves accountable for nipping this kind of conversation. They refocus their people toward what’s more meaningful: Results. What was our identified success criteria for doing XYZ? Where are we on that? What are the implications if we don’t hit those metrics? Who else might need to be involved? What are the bottlenecks holding this back? Accountable leaders don’t dive in to solve the problem. They commit to having meaningful conversations with their people around what matters most: Results.

Discern the Facts. Just because something has taken a tailspin into the world of drama doesn’t mean that the root cause of that drama doesn’t need to be explored, recognized, altered, adjusted, etc. Accountable leaders hold themselves accountable for using their discernment to dig deeper toward root causes rather than getting all caught up in the storytelling around the drama itself.

Likewise, accountable leaders look at the harsh truths about how a particular strategic annual initiative is going. If an annual initiative isn’t moving like it should, accountable leaders dig for the truth around bottlenecks, people problems, laborious systems that are holding forward progress back, etc. With this knowledge, they then hold themselves accountable to act on what they know (vs. simply recognizing the problem and working around it). By their very nature, accountable leaders are action-oriented. 

Accountable leaders also are firm believers in assessing their own leadership effectiveness. Without knowing what they’re doing well and what they could improve on (from the perspective of those they lead), how can they continue on a viable leadership journey? Sometimes assessments such as leadership 360’s can "ouch" just a bit, but accountable leaders want to know the truth about their own leadership habits and style. How are they showing up each day in the minds of their people? They love to ask questions and learn about their personal leadership impact. As examples, they might ask:

  • How good am I at creating a culture of personal ownership?
  • How good am I are creating transparency?
  • How good am I at having conversations with my people around results?
  • To what degree do I appear to get sucked into workplace drama?
  • To what degree do my people think I’m part of creating workplace drama?
  • How good am I at discerning the facts, and then acting on that discernment?
  • To what degree do my people feel that I keep my commitments to them?

Many times, they work with an Executive Coach. An outside perspective can fuel strategic thinking and purposeful action. An executive coach speeds up this process and creates forward movement toward higher levels of personal accountability. Coaches are trusted advisors that offer perspectives, ideas, thoughts, and guidance for thinking through given situations. The right executive coach is the best accountability partner you’ll ever have.

Becoming an accountable leader is a very personal journey full of twists and turns. As with any personal journey, it’s not an easy path. If you desire to get on track to increase your own personal accountabilities as a leader, call Rhythm Systems today. For each aspect mentioned in this blog, we can help you move toward your strategic intent, organizationally and personally.

Free White Paper: Intelligent Work Platform

Want more information on Team Accountability? Check out these additional resources:

Take Our Team Accountability Assessment 

The Five C's of Team Accountability

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

10 Signs of an Accountable Culture [Infographic]

Growing Accountability in Your Organization

Quick Tips for Building Accountability

5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams. 

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

  request meeting with Rhythm Systems

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images